Often people joke about having online 'stalkers'.
Perhaps it's someone who favourites nearly every single tweet you post, religiously likes your facebook statuses the second you post them, or maybe even sends you gushing emails of appreciation at what you do. We can joke about it among friends, and in most cases it's unexpectedly sweet and completely harmless. Just a bit of fun. If anything, it's a bit of a massage on the ol' ego, that someone can enjoy what you do as much as that.
But what happens when something like this takes a turn for the darker side?
What happens when it suddenly stops being funny, and starts becoming terrifyingly, deadly serious?
Well, unfortunately, I inadvertently found out.
I've dealt with some 'interesting characters' online before.
I'm not sure if my Facebook profile is listed somewhere it shouldn't be, but I frequently get added by strange people with no mutual friends, and occasionally they go on to message me too.
To get the jist of what I mean, it'd be stuff like this:
I always laughed about it, when in reality, stuff like 'I've saved a lot of your pics on my PC' should probably have sent alarm bells ringing.
But it wasn't until recently, that I realised the true extent of just how weird people can get online. Especially if you rub them up the wrong way.
I was quite lucky, in retrospect. My situation could've been a hell of a lot worse. You always hear horror stories about stuff like this... I just never thought something similar could happen to me.
It began at about 4pm in early September, as I was sat at my desk in the office where I was interning.
I was browsing Twitter, when I suddenly got a new Direct Message. With a slight frown I saw it was from a guy called 'David'. *
*(His real name was obviously not David.)
David was a journalist who had followed me ages ago, and wanting to get into the media industry myself, I'd followed back. Who knows, he might've been a useful contact at some point in the future.
I had no idea what was to come from him.
I opened the DM and stared at my phone in confusion.
The message read:
"On a serious note. When are we going for that drink you mentioned? :-o :P"
At first I thought perhaps someone had hacked his account or grabbed his phone when he wasn't looking. His profile said he was a professional journalist and he was using smilies? And he seemed to be referring to a previous discussion... yet we'd never spoken before?
I replied in confusion, saying "...Was this meant for me?!"
He replied, but I decided to stop the conversation right there.
I didn't know who he was and I had no real interest to find out. Just another weirdo on the internet.
He waited 1 hour and 7 minutes for my reply before he sent:
"That scared you I suppose?"
Which instantly chilled me a little.
I chose to reply then.
As you can see, he was clearly not making any sense.
"That was the 'perk'... I call it 'personality'. It was a random hit, with a sweet flavour."
I shook my head. My initial thought was this guy either did not speak English as his first language, or he was high as hell.
But as I read on, my temper flared.
"It's my High IQ, I tend to assume people are on the same frequency..."
Then I got angry. What a condescending prick. And to someone who he'd never even spoken to before.
In spite, I screenshotted the conversation, blanked out his name, and tweeted the above picture with the caption "This guy has certainly mastered pick-up-lines 101."
Nothing too incriminating.
But boy oh boy, was I in for a treat.
The conversation didn't stop there.
"I was just trying to be funny. You clearly need to study. Maybe you have a High IQ - Many people with High IQ's work in McDonalds."
I don't know why, but him insulting my intelligence seriously got my riled up. It was like my Achilles heel.
"Don't give me that 'is English your first language thing... please. I'd gladly teach you some though."
I just couldn't understand, was he trying to be funny? Or was he deliberately going out of his way to be insulting because I'd turned down his backhanded offer for a drink?
"I literally do not understand where you're trying to go with this..." I replied.
"Were you expecting some love at first sight shit?"
"...You could not have misjudged this situation more if you tried." I typed, my fingers trembling in anger. The messages got more and more offensive, derogatory and misogynistic. I told myself to stop replying, but some of them really incensed me and I couldn't stop myself
"Well you're clearly enjoying this too if you're still typing." All the while his black soulless eyes boring into me from the computer screen.
"You're a pig." I replied, unfollowed and blocked him.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and cleared my head. I kind of regretted calling him a pig and reacting to his weird flirty insults, but it didn't matter. It was done now and he was gone.
But ohhhhhhh no he wasn't.
At this time I left the office and headed to London Bridge. It was while til my train, so I set up my laptop in Starbucks (yes I'm one of those) and started to go through some emails.
I'd been there for about half an hour when an email pinged into my box.
It was from David.
My instant reaction was a cross between an exasperated groan and a sigh.
I just want to seriously apologise for all this.
I admit it, I was a bit hyper and in a good mood and acted a bit out of my usual self.
I believe when a man accepts his fault and sincerely apologises, he can be forgiven.
I really really wish to take any offence I might have caused.
It was all petty from my part and yours too, but I wish to look forward and forget about it all.
It was a private random chat, and by no means I intended to escalate it or make anything serious out of it.
I hope this clears it out.
And I ask you to remove my photo from your Twitter.
Although it’s a joke and nothing serious, I’m not fond of my photo being there.
I hope all this can be forgotten and if you wish to follow me on Twitter, I will follow you back.
I think we both acted a bit silly, but I think we can move on and maybe be friends and learn from this.
I hope you understand, all of us humans can sometimes be silly. In no way did I intend to cause any serious harm or offence, it was all petty.
From the heart.
p.s. Please accept my apologies and remove my photo. I also promise we can be friends if you re-follow me, and who knows, you might learn from this.
At first I felt a little disconcerted at the sudden formality of his tone, then I felt bad about posting the photo, then I felt my rage return.
"I promise we can be friends if you re-follow me."
"Who knows, you might learn from this."
In retrospect, I should've just removed it then and got on with my life. It was stupid not to do so. But I guess a part of me was holding this up in my defence as if to say 'You can't talk to people like this and think you can get away with it.' Besides, he was making out as if the picture had revealed his plans to smuggle a nuclear warhead into the country, not an awkward attempt at asking someone out. I'd not even screenshotted any of his far more offensive and incriminating messages, which there were plenty of.
I ignored the email and put the privacy lock on my Twitter, not keen on the fact that despite me blocking him, he'd clearly logged into a different account to view my profile.
I put my laptop away and headed home.
I got home and quickly forgot about the whole silly thing.
I was at 4am, that the buzzing of my phone woke me up. The email icon was flashing persistently and my heart froze in my chest. Surely not...
I gingerly opened my inbox to find 17 consecutive emails from David, sent from both his personal and professional journalism account.
The emails were all 10-20 paragraphs long, explaining in detail how he didn't mean to cause offense and it was unacceptable for me to not be replying to him. They got progressively more aggressive and I felt sick to my stomach.
I logged onto Twitter asap and deleted the picture and sent him a single line "I have deleted the picture. Never contact me again."
But it didn't stop, I continued receiving messages throughout the wee hours of the morning. I assured him one more time I had deleted it before switching off my phone and rocking myself to sleep.
The next morning I awoke and cautiously checked my phone.
It hadn't stopped.
He must've been awake the entire night.
Again my email inbox was full saying he didn't believe that I'd deleted the photo because my account was still protected. I'd been asleep, but he'd been demanding I unprotect my account to prove it was gone.
There were 12 more emails from two different accounts in my inbox, he'd also gone onto my TUMBLR and put 10 anonymous messages in my inbox there demanding I answer his emails and 'delete the picture' - which I had already informed him on several occasions I'd already deleted. (Which I had)
That's when I began to cry.
I mailed him the screenshot of my Twitter account but he wouldn't take it as proof. He didn't want to be unblocked, but he was demanding I unprotected my tweets so he could see, but there was no way in hell I wanted him anywhere near my private information.
Then it all got WAY serious.
I thought I was going to be sick.
I was shaking and crying. I tried to call anyone I could, but no-one was picking up the phone. 8 more emails came through of a similar nature, becoming more and more threatening.
I'd removed the picture hours ago, I done everything I could to show him that it was gone, except unprotect my account, which had information about my family, friends and address on (from links to my blog).
I told him again that it was gone and again he demanded I prove it right that second or he was going to call the police.
I had no idea if the police could even have any power in this situation, but the only reassuring thing would be that he would probably get done for harassment and blackmail.
But it got even worse.
Not only was he attempting to blackmail me with hush money now, he'd be scrolling through my Facebook photos to find pictures of me on Brick Lane with my friends.
And now he was going to tell the police the 'WHOLE TRUTH?!' I didn't even know what Whole Truth he was referring to but it scared the shit out of me anyway.
That was the final breaking point for me and I knew I'd been left with no choice.
"Don't you DARE transfer me a single penny. My account is now unblocked, see that the picture is gone. Please never EVER contact me again, Please."
I unprotected my account and sent the message, my entire body trembling. My screen was filled with the picture of his monochrome face, pixelated soulless eyes glaring into mine, making my skin crawl.
I watched as his next email pinged onto my screen.
Sorry, too late :)
Quickly followed by another email from Paypal telling me I'd received a payment.
I thought I was going to throw up on the screen right then and there.
I'd just been blackmailed with hush money to do the bidding of a psycho who has going to get me arrested, all because I hadn't liked the way he'd spoken to me and turned down his offer for a date.
His words 'too late' and that smiley face singed into my eyeballs and I just felt cold.
I slammed my finger down on the 'Issue Refund' button quicker than you could even say the phrase.
When the money left my account again, I regained a little bit of peace.
At least now it was over.
He emailed me a futher 3 times (despite promising to never contact me again) to thank me for co-operating and saying it was a shame I returned the refund, maybe I could have spent it on a cocktail with him one day.
He then proceeded to send me a gallery of his photography, and say that he hoped one day we could meet under different circumstances, and perhaps go on to be more than friends.
I saved the emails and screenshots of what had transpired over the last 24 hours, and blocked his email address.
I haven't heard from him since.
In retrospect, what happened was partly my fault, and I'll admit that. I was foolish and let my pride get the better of me. But hey, I guess it's not everyday you make a joke about someone who turns out to be a blackmailing psycho who simultaneously attempts to get you arrested for defamation.
I can also thank my lucky stars it was not more severe.
But I have definitely learnt my lesson, and thankfully can now prevent anything similar or worse happening to me in the future, and hopefully this post will make you guys aware too.
Staying safe online in this day and age seems such a mute point, especially for bloggers, whose sole purpose is to tell the world of their lives. We bloggers actively try to put as much information about us out there as possible, and as many different forms of contacting us as we can, but I can tell you, when shit turns sour, its a damning, world-come-crashing-down-around-you realisation that you can't undo that.
You can't revoke what you have already given away on the internet.
But there are things you can do to protect yourself as a blogger.
Don't use your personal email address as your main contact source for your blog. This address will most likely be linked to your home address, credit card details and all kind of online accounts you're signed up to. Create an email account specifically for your blog, and use it solely for contact to and from that.
If you're concerned about the security of your Twitter or your tweets, make a seperate account for your blog which you can remain public and interact with bloggers and brands on there, and protect your personal account which you can use to chat with your friends. That way your timeline doesn't get clogged up with blog-related stuff too, and you can keep your private life with your friends and family, private.
Don't link your social media buttons to your personal accounts. For example, your Facebook button should link to a 'Like' Page you have created for your blog, not to your personal profile. In conjunction, make sure not to post on that page from your personal profile - be mindful to only post as the page.
Possibly the most important and most blinding obvious, do not put your home address online! If you are emailing a respectable brand that wish to send you some free samples or gifts, then use your judgement to work out whether it is legit before you give them your home address. If you are in the situation were your readers/subscribers want to send you something, like fanmail or birthday cards, you should set up a PO Box at your local post office. That way, all your goodies can get sent there, you can pop along and pick up your mail whenever, and you don't have to worry about crazy people turning up on your doorstep professing their undying love.
You can find out more about setting up a PO Box here.
Hopefully this advice will prevent you from having a similar incident to mine, and stay safe online kiddies! It's a vast an still uncharted territory, and you really don't wanna land yourself in a pickle with one of the nasties from the interwebs. Trust me, it's not pretty.
Safe blogging and much love,